FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Lee Nguyen could’ve very easily played out the rest of his career in Vietnam, starring in the V.League and living the life of an A-list celebrity. No one would have blamed him.
But Nguyen felt he had a point to prove. Once a highly-touted prospect in the U.S. Soccer system – earning three senior caps as a 20-year-old in 2007 – he’d drifted into obscurity after leaving the bright lights of Europe for a lucrative deal in Southeast Asia. He wasn’t satisfied with fading away.
So Nguyen came home, striking a deal with MLS that landed him briefly with Vancouver Whitecaps FC and then the New England Revolution. His end goal: work his way back into the national team picture.
You could say it’s mission accomplished for the now-28-year-old, who – along with Revolution teammate and World Cup star Jermaine Jones – is part of the 25-man roster called in by U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for the last two friendlies of the 2014 calendar year.
“It was definitely a tough decision when I had to come back, but it was one that I was pretty focused on,” Nguyen said after helping the Revs advance to the Eastern Conference Championship on Sunday night. “I wanted to achieve something that many people probably doubted was possible.”
Nguyen, of course, knows that the work doesn’t end with this call-up. In many ways, it begins. He’ll have three days to train with the U.S. in London before Friday’s friendly against Colombia.
That may well be all the time Nguyen has on this occasion – both he and Jones have indicated they’ll likely return to the Revs after that match, re-joining their club side to continue postseason preparations while the U.S. continues on to Dublin and Tuesday’s match against Ireland.
“This is hopefully just the first,” Nguyen said. “I’ve still got to keep going and keep pushing. That’s the main thing. As long as you keep playing well, you’re going to get more chances.”
Nguyen earned this chance based on his recent performances with the Revolution, helping guide his club to the brink of an MLS Cup appearance with 20 goals and six assists in all competitions this season. Those are figures which unsurprisingly have him at the forefront of the MLS MVP discussion.
They’re also figures which Klinsmann simply couldn’t ignore.
“I’m happy for him,” Jones said of his teammate for both club and country. “He showed good games here in the league, scores a lot of goals and if you do that, it’s normal that the national team and Jurgen Klinsmann calls you in.”
“I think Lee’s been excellent all year, and even last year and the year before,” said Jay Heaps. “I think it’s well deserved and I’m very happy for him, because I think he has aspirations to be with the national team. We’re rooting for him.”
Those national team aspirations never wavered through the past seven years, since Nguyen made the only three appearances of his senior career in 2007, debuting in a friendly against China and then playing twice at Copa America (alongside current teammate Charlie Davies and Revolution legend Taylor Twellman) in Venezuela.
It was back when Nguyen was a budding star in the U.S. youth ranks as he tried to carve out a place for himself at legendary Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, and he admits it’s likely to be a much different experience this time around.
“I was just a little teenager, so it was a great experience for me,” he said. “I’ve grown so much as a player and a person, so it’ll definitely be different.”
It’s been a long wait – and a long road – for Nguyen to once again don the colors of his country, and he very much hopes it won’t be years between call-ups this time. But just in case, he plans on enjoying every moment that he gets to wear the red, white and blue.
“I missed it a lot,” Nguyen said of playing for the U.S. “Any time you can play for your country, that’s the highest honor, the highest privilege you can have as a football player. You’ve got to go out there and represent.”